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How to write a swan song

Ecivda spelled backwards for a modern age.

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My first assignment as an editor for The Writer was writing a column called “Lasting Effect,” which involved mining the magazine’s archives to find nuggets of past wisdom from the greats – Stephen King, Lois Lowry, Barbara Neely, Ursula K. Le Guin – that might still be relevant today. As long as you didn’t mind legions of dust and the occasional papercut, it was a fantastic gig. I distinctly remember the first time I headed back to my desk with a stack of archival volumes from our library. It was winter in Boston, the sun slanting low through the windows, and I flipped through each year with heady reverence, never knowing which literary titan might appear on the next page. But it wasn’t any particularly well-known name who reached through the pages to catch my wrist that day in December. It was the magazine’s longtime columnist Lesley Conger, in an advice-laden essay from the April 1959 issue called “Ecivda Spelled Backwards.” 

 

Be bold when you write, Conger wrote. Don’t be timid. Don’t write little, wispy, fragile things unless you really prefer little, wispy, fragile things. Don’t write little, wispy, fragile things because you’re scared of big ones.

 

I suddenly went very, very still at my desk. 

 

Don’t be afraid of your own ideas, no matter how Gargantuan; a grand and zesty idea, even imperfectly executed, has more hope in it than a little, timid, shivering idea, carried out to perfection. If you have the ability to make people laugh and cry, don’t waste it. 

 

I shifted nervously in my chair.

 

Remember always that you hold time in your hands; you are the custodian of the leisure hours of a man you have never seen – your reader. Don’t cheat him. You cannot stir a man’s soul with a plastic teaspoon.

 

 

 

 

At that point in time, I was trapped in a two-year parade of nonstop funerals, where my now-husband and I ultimately mourned 10 relatives in 24 months. I lost my father to H1N1 earlier that year; our beloved German Shepherd died the week before I started at The Writer. I had just left a job where my boss believed me to be the worst editor who ever wielded a red pen, and in a few months, I would finally have an explanation for the increasingly muffled and confusing voices of everyone around me: a diagnosis of profound, deteriorating hearing loss.

 

This was supposed to be my fresh start, my new beginning. My triumph. My chance at boldness. And here I sat at my desk in my sad pink dress, shivering at the words of a dead woman and feeling very much like a little, wispy, fragile thing myself. 

 

Write what you know, Nicki, my past instructors chorused. Could little, wispy, fragile, broken things lay claim to boldness? Or were we doomed to write little, wispy, fragile, broken things forever?

 

Remember always that you hold time in your hands, I read again. Time my father didn’t have, time so many family members didn’t have. Time and attention, our most precious resources. Time I couldn’t afford to waste.

 

I uncapped my red felt pen and carefully copied Conger’s words onto a yellow Post-it note and stuck it on my monitor. I looked at her words before I began every new draft. And with each story I filed, I felt less wispy, less fragile. Less broken. The death parade marched on outside of work, and I wrote. My grandmother and my husband’s grandmother died within 24 hours of each other, and I didn’t flinch; instead, I wrote. I did interviews from the car on the long drives to funerals. I balanced notebooks on the lap of my mourning dress as I waited for flower or catering orders. I penned eulogies and memorials at home, interviews and columns at work. I heard less and less and read more and more, grieving my hearing along with my relatives, and still I wrote – and soon enough, my pencil’s compass needle started to automatically point toward the grand and zesty on its own accord. Toward the Gargantuan. Eventually, finding boldness became as easy as finding north.

 

That Post-it stayed with me through a number of desk swaps, title changes, and life shifts. I touched its corners for courage before beginning my very first editor’s letter to you. I brought it to the sweltering heat of Virginia and moved it, tucked neatly in my wallet, 4,000 miles to the hard north of Alaska. It is now more white than yellow, and the red ink has long since faded to orangey-pink, but it has guided me through every letter to you since that very first one. 

 

It is guiding me now as I write this, my very last one.

 

 

 

 

How does an ugly duckling write a swan song? It’s a question I asked myself frequently as this letter’s due date neared. In nature, swans don’t sing at all; they trumpet or call, snort or hiss, but never sing outside of legend, which dictates each swan exit the mortal realm with one final, beautiful song. I can’t confirm or deny the legend; I’ve never gotten close enough to a living swan, let alone a dying one. And I’d imagine that just as a watched pot never boils, a watched swan would never sing for humans. A more interesting question, I think, is why an exiting swan would choose to sing at all. Perhaps for herself, to stretch her vocal wings to full capacity at least one time before they’re laid to rest. Perhaps to laugh at those who call her mute. But I like to think she sings for the swans she leaves behind, calls forth what she knows, and echoes it all in one lasting refrain before she departs. 

 

Although my own exit is merely one offstage – or rather off-page – I still know myself too clumsy for such a graceful departure. But I can take what little time I have left here in my hands to tell you what I know, or what I wish I’d known when I was a little, wispy, fragile thing begging boldness from my shaking pen. 

 

 

 

Write for the good faith readers. 

There is a difference between writing for an audience and writing for what Melissa Febos brilliantly calls the “bad faith reader,” the person in your comments section or Twitter mentions determined to pick apart everything you say. Many writers – myself very much included – write with the bad faith reader on one shoulder, hedging every statement we make in an attempt to stave off future criticism. But I’m learning we will never outrun the bad faith reader. They will remain doggedly determined to pick apart your words no matter how you dodge or parry on the page. Hedging will only obscure your truth for the reader who needs it most. Write for the people who feel a need for your words; ignore those who feel a need to tear them apart.

 

 

It’s OK to take up space. 

In inboxes. On the page. In your dream publication. In a class. At a conference. In your writer’s group. 

It’s OK to chase what you want. Following up about something you want does not make you annoying. (In my swamp of an inbox, it makes you a godsend.) Pitching again or resubmitting does not make you a pest, as long as you are respecting a publication’s guidelines on the matter. I once had a stranger pitch me via a cold text to my personal cell phone. I’ve had several people propose articles while simultaneously insulting the very publication they were pitching. One time someone pitched our inbox approximately 56 times in 24 hours. As long as you are not doing that, you are OK. I promise.

It’s OK, too, to spend money on your writing. Not everyone can, and not everyone needs to; terrific free resources for writers abound. But if you don’t purchase class or conference registrations because you feel you don’t deserve to or because you’re afraid you aren’t good enough for them, I would love to challenge that thinking. Do you know how many grown adults take pottery classes? Register for 5Ks? Join improv groups? No one expects them to throw perfect cups on the first go, or cross the finish line first, or perform for packed houses. Worry less about merit and more about joy; to enjoy doing anything is reason enough to pursue it.

 

 

Do whatever you need to do to cleave yourself and your self-worth from your rejections.

Publishing is not and has never been fair (and it’s outrageously less fair to writers from marginalized communities). Publishing is not kind or predictable. Great stories are rejected all the time. I know because I’ve had to reject them. Rejections are too often not a matter of whether something is good but rather if it is something that fits. In any normal issue, I have 48 pages to fill; I can’t get any more by asking nicely, or phoning the printer, or magicking more into existence (and yes, I have tried). In any given month, our inbox receives enough excellent content to fill 1,048 pages. A no is so often a game of simple, cruel math: Only so many pages to fill, money in a budget, hours in a day, clients in a roster, or books in an imprint’s list. A no does not necessarily mean anything about your writing talents or your story’s worth or your career’s future. A no is one decision made by one person based on one fit. Treating it as such, to the best you are able, will do wonders for preserving your mental health. 

 

Similarly, your health – mental and physical – is worth more than any byline or deadline.

Every editor worth their salt believes this. If they don’t, they don’t deserve a second more of your time, let alone your health.

 

 

You are not the writer you were before.

It’s funny how writers seek and demand change in our characters but always seem startled when we find change in ourselves. Because you have changed. Change is the only constant in our lives. You are not the writer you were in college, you are not the writer you were 10 years ago, and you are not even the writer you were pre-pandemic. If something that once worked now feels uncomfortable, it may no longer fit you. Slip it off, bid it a fond farewell, and go chase something that does.

 

 

Put your energy and urgency on the page. 

Before I lost much of my hearing, one of my last telephone interviews was with Heidi Pitlor, author and editor of The Best American Short Stories series. I’ll never forget something she told me: Write with energy. I think energy is one of those things we don’t talk about enough, and it’s so important for the reader. You can feel a writer’s energy on the page. Years later, I still agree we don’t talk enough about energy, the fervent undercurrent that runs through a writer’s work and makes it spark and crackle with life. But I would also add urgency to the discussion. I can feel when prose unfurls languidly on the page, and I can sense when a writer is tugging at my sleeve, pulling me down to meet them, understand what they need to say now as opposed to later. If you have something pressing to say, say it not only with boldness and energy but with urgency, too.

 

Remember fun.

Or perhaps more accurately: Remember fun? Remember how you used to seize your notebooks and pour ideas into them as a young writer, delighting in every sentence? It’s likely why you started writing in the first place. Readers can tell when you’re enjoying yourself on the page. My favorite pieces are always the ones that were deliciously fun to write, when it feels as if I’m skipping atop my sentences instead of slogging through them. There’s a reason we call it wordplay: Writing doesn’t have to be such a serious doom-and-gloom affair (hell, even Edgar Allan Poe wrote humor). By all means, write your tragedies, but never fear pursuing your comedies as well.

 

 

Listen to the chorus, not the soloist.

One person tearing your work to shreds is an outlier, not an average; the same goes for someone who sings your work’s highest praises with no constructive criticisms. Surround yourself with trusted voices, plural, and listen to what emerges in the common refrain. Promise to never let one negative voice drown out your own, no matter how loudly it clamors.

 

And, lastly, a few final good things to remember:

Remember that writing has no entry requirements, no expiration date, no retirement age, no starting minimum. I’ve worked with writers still in college and writers in their 90s and loved every second of both. 

 

Remember that publishing your work is always an honor, never a favor. The highest highs of my tenure at The Writer have not been working with writers with lengthy, prestigious clips but rather with those who received their first byline and publication in The Writer. It was a gift and a privilege to be the first publication that printed their words, and I feel so fortunate to have facilitated it.

 

Remember that writing is both a craft and a community. Aim to sow as much as you reap.

 

Remember that no time spent writing is wasted.

 

And remember, always remember, what good writing can do. 

 

 

I named this column “Dear Reader” primarily because I wanted a space to talk to you, not at you, but also because you have always been so dear to me. Reading your letters and messages has always been my favorite part of this job. I am off now to pursue writing my own bold stories despite the timidity I still find lurking in my wispy, fragile heart. But if you’d like to keep in touch and tell me about all the wonderful things you’re doing or writing or learning, or ask any questions, you can always, always find me at nickiporter.com. 

Serving as your editor has been the greatest delight of my career. It is an honor I will hold in my heart for the rest of my days.

 

 

Keep writing, and please keep in touch – 

Nicki Porter

 

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